Swami Shankarananda is director of the Shiva School of Meditation in Melbourne, where he teaches self-inquiry meditation and counts actor Garry McDonald as one of his students. Before becoming Swami Shankarananda, he was an English literature academic in the US, deeply connected with the literature and music culture of the late 1960s. He had two defining experiences that set him on a spiritual path, which took him away from academia and to India to meet his guru, Swami Muktananda.
Interview by Tamsin Angus-Leppan
What brought you to the yoga path?
I was an academic in New York. There were two decisive moments that changed my life. One moment was when I was at a friend’s apartment in the Lower East Side and I answered the door and a gun was thrust in my face. I could see the bullets in the gun and I thought, “my life is over”. And then the next thought was, “what is this life about that it can be snuffed out like that?”. It turned out that the guy with the gun realised he had the wrong people and he left. After that I had a transformation. It seemed like my career goals were suddenly trivial. And so I started to investigate spiritual things. The year after, 1970, I was teaching and living in Chicago but my quest was going on and I was keenly aware that the answers were not in the academic world. I was invited to a little dinner party with Ram Dass, who had just come back from India.
I had been thinking about the concept of enlightenment and I had an idea that to be enlightened you would have to be totally in the moment. So I said to Ram Dass, “How does an enlightened man plan for the future? How does he even cross the street?” He said, “An enlightened person plans for the future in the present.” It changed my life—I suddenly knew, in that moment, that enlightened people existed and I knew I had to find one. I also knew that I had to go to India. Six months later, my wife and I drove a VW bus from Amsterdam to Rishikesh, where the yogis were. Lots of adventures along the way, we picked up the now-famous kirtan singer Krishna Das.
What happened in India?
In 1971 Ram Dass introduced me to Swami Muktananda and I decided I wanted to spend time in his ashram. I spent three years in a highly structured environment, up in the morning at 3.30 am, the whole day spent in chanting and meditation work. I moved from being very connected to the culture of the 1960s, the literature and music, so I left this whole cultural context into a space of eternity. No TV, no Time magazine, no concerts, no context, and I was aware I was doing sadhana [spiritual practice] in an ashram the way it had been done for 2000 years. I was disconnected from my culture and just left to myself, and that was shocking, because I realised how dependent I was on externals to entertain myself. My mind started spinning; at one point, Muktananda told me to say the mantra very intensely because I was spinning out and I did that really intensively and it transformed my state.
What do you teach at the Shiva School of Meditation in Melbourne?
The main practice that I teach is self-inquiry. Self-inquiry is about always trying to move towards what I call the upward shift, towards the feeling of the Divine. When you move in the wrong direction you feel contracted and confined; when you move in the right direction, you feel an upliftment, you feel the wind of the spirit. You might say, “Of course I want to move towards the spirit”, but it’s not that easy. Fear, attachment, aversion—all these things get in our way. Our preconceptions, the rigidity of the mind, stop us from seeing the footprints of the Divine, but that’s the real practice.